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Saori Tsukada and Christopher Oden in Orestia
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Three directors each take on a play from the oldest Greek trilogy in recorded history without knowledge of each other's interpretations. This isn't the pitch for a highbrow reality TV show but, rather, the concept for Theater Faction's ambitious debut production. The company's divide-and-conquer approach to Aeschylus's Oresteia aims to liberate the text from a unifying concept; more importantly, it allows the troupe to put a lot of talent on display.

Unfortunately, the misguided adaptation and staging of Agamemnon makes for a poor start to the series. The play as written begins when a watchman announces the end of the Trojan War and the return of the titular king. The chorus of Argive elders reveals that Agamemnon has sacrificed his daughter and taken a soothsaying concubine named Cassandra. Eventually, scorned wife Clytemnestra cools the victory celebration with a grisly double murder of the cheating husband and his conquered prophetess. Cassandra's dark vision of the family's fate plays out in the rest of the trilogy.

Artistic director Erik Nelson pares the epic down to a two-person tale of a colonialist oppressor king (Chris Oden) and a queen (Saori Tsukada) who speaks in a thick accent and breaks into Japanese during moments of emotional distress; it's a racially loaded casting choice meant to highlight the character's foreignness. The real Clytemnestra is, in many ways, the colonized "other" that this production portrays. (According to myth, Agamemnon wins her hand by slaying her former husband and their child in war.)

But whereas the original play shows how the oppressed becomes an oppressor, this adaptation turns the piece into an easy victim game. In Aeschylus's Agamemnon, Clytemnestra murders the bystander Cassandra -- who is a vessel of Apollo -- and this crime against the gods brings disaster upon the family. Oddly, Nelson's version leaves out Cassandra, the very character that brings about the tragedy. The adaptation, complete with mock State of the Union addresses, clearly wants to be an anti-war play, yet the director misses several textual opportunities to illustrate wartime tragedies.

Luckily, the show's format allows it to hedge its bets, and the other two stories fare much better. Director Yuval Sharon's hilarious adaptation of Libation Bearers departs just as much from the original Aeschylus as the first play while keeping in tune with its concepts and complexities. It begins with Agamemnon's daughter Electra (Sarah Freunfelder) mourning her for her dad -- and we can see that she's really upset because she's wearing dark sunglasses. Here, ancient Greece is a digital playground with fitness equipment and Internet access, but this isn't a cheap modernization of the play; the director has a keen eye for mythology in the modern world. For instance, the woman on a cross-country trainer (Cara Consilvo as "Fitness Electra") is like Sisyphus, the tragic figure forced to push a boulder up a mountain and never reach the top.

The subtitle, "Mourning is a Form of Activism," is a pointed criticism of a society that confuses sympathy with political action. Orestes is too much of a whiner to avenge his father's death on his own, so Electra gives him a gentle prodding by pointing out that he's acting like "a fucking pussy." The actors utter these bon mots in between lyrical sections of the original Aeschylus play; it's all done in the style of playwright-provocateur Charles Mee, who interpolates pieces of various texts in his works. Sharon uses some of Mee's own material along with bits of Sophocles, Euripides, and Rage Against the Machine. The chorus even belts out a bootilicious anthem for Clytemnestra, courtesy of Destiny's Child.

Sharon's actors are completely in line with his frenzied interpretation. Sarah Freunfelder makes a magnetic Electra; although her dialogue spans thousands of years, she keeps the character coherent and always seems alive and present. The three sisters of the chorus each have their own personalities and idiosyncrasies, and Caroline Worra displays an impressive operatic voice when she sings an aria from Richard Strauss' Elektra in a bathtub. There's so much talent on the stage that the director's many devices sometimes seem distracting.

The final installment of the trilogy, David Johnston's The Eumenides, is tighter and more cohesive than his companions' pieces. Although it's the most traditional of the three by far, the imaginative adaptation tells the classic story with some modern adjustments. Orestes is no longer the sorry kid from The Mourners; instead, he's a runaway looking for refuge in Athena's kingdom. Naked and blood-soaked, he has finally killed his mother, and the Furies want revenge. Now, Athena must set a trial to determine whether he should have sanctuary or justice.

The play calls to mind a modern American courtroom drama. Apollo is Orestes' slippery attorney and he acts like an unctuous prep school kid; charismatic and overconfident, he tells the jury to relax and assures everybody that he knows what he's talking about. Michael Bell makes the role look easy with his soothing voice and laid-back manner. Beau Allulli's Orestes is moving and sincere. Lori Lane Jefferson's Athena balances divine austerity with the adaptation's Judge Judy-inspired quips. At one point, she deadpans to Orestes: "Some family you've got, kid!"

Johnston's direction is clear and solid, and his play finds the humanity in every character. Even though The Eumenides is vastly different from Sharon's The Mourners, both directors elicit natural performances from their actors. The former could benefit from the other's wide range of ideas while the latter needs to focus his vision, but both display great promise.

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